By Tom Bell
A black Lincoln Town Car — with a plastic American eagle perched on the dashboard — cruised through my neighborhood the other day. Four men sat inside the car. I’ve been trying to meet some rich Russians lately, so while the car was waiting at a light, I tapped on the window to speak to the driver. But the light changed and the Lincoln sped away before I could say anything.
A few days later, I saw the car again. It was parked on the sidewalk in front of a Japanese restaurant, a favorite gathering place for thugs and foreigners. No one was in the car, but inside the restaurant I saw the driver, a young, tough-looking punk — maybe 20 years old — sitting at a table with five other men. They were all young bruisers except for the man at the head of the table — a fat, middle-aged man wearing a tie, a pin-striped shirt, grey slacks and Air Jordan sneakers.
“Who owns the Lincoln? I asked.
The fat man smiled and handed me his business card — “Sergei S. Eliseyev, President of Trade Industrial Co. DALS&S.” He asked me to join him for lunch. The five men sitting with him are his security guards, he explained. One of the guards — a big guy with a drooping moustache — punched his hand with his fist, to make the point clear I knew his line of work. Some of my Russian friends say they hate going to restaurants because they can’t stand to see the people who eat there — thugs, thieves and wheeler-dealers. These are the people making money in Russia these days. Eliseyev is a wheeler-dealer. He buys new and used cars, mainly from Japan, and sells them to rich Russians. He has cars shipped from Japan to the Russian port city of Nahodtka. Then he and his boys drive the cars to Khabarovsk. They drive in a convoy of four cars to protect themselves from the gunmen who cruise the highway robbing people of their Japanese cars and extorting money. A car in Japan that sells for $22,000 is worth $30,000 in Khabarovsk. Eliseyev said it costs only $500 to ship a container with four cars across the Sea of Japan
Eliseyev was a radio electronics specialists before he entered the business world, first as administrator in a Russian-American joint venture and then as president of his own trading company. Besides cars, he has bought and sold fish, lumber and computers. But now he’s mostly buying cars; that’s where the greatest profits are. After lunch, we drove to his office. I rode in the Lincoln with Eliseyev and two bodyguards. Three other guards followed us in a Pontiac Grand Am.
At the office, located above a food store he owns, Eliseyev showed me blueprints for the 17-room mansion he’s building for himself. There’ll be a special room for a security guard. Eliseyev wouldn’t talk about why he has so many guards, except to say that he is a target because he’s rich. He pulled out an 8mm pistol from a desk drawer and gave it to me to examine. “A pioneer is like a child,” he said. “It’s easy to beat him down. But God protects people who protect themselves.”
Besides the mansion, Eliseyev plans to build a brick factory and two hotels. He’s also building houses for 12 of his employees.
I don’t know if he has the money to do all these things. A businessman who knows him described him as “a small-time guy with big ideas.” It would be easy to dismiss someone like Eliseyev as a bragger, a two-bit car dealer, a junior capitalist pig with an overblown need for security. But I’m tired of looking at poor people. Russia needs rich people like Eliseyev if it’s ever going to make the transition to a market economy. It needs rich people to build hotels and factories. It needs wheeler-dealers.
At the end of the interview, Eliseyev drove me home in his Lincoln. On the way, he talked about plans to establish vegetable farms on land he owns on the left bank of the Amur. Maybe it was all talk, but for the first time in weeks I’ve begun to think there’s hope for Russia. For this I thank the fat man with the Lincoln Town Car.